Shapira, Tel Aviv
“Infiltrators,”, says Oscar Olivier, “That’s what they’re called.” Oscar, a volunteer on the Hotline for Migrant Workers (HMW), gets visibly upset whenever he talks about the situation of African refugees in Israel.
It might come as a surprise to some that there are any Africans at all in Israel. There’s always so much going on between Israelis and Palestinians that it’s easy for outsiders to believe that’s the only preoccupation in this country. But alongside the 130,000 African Jews resident here are 35,000 refugees from Africa. However, the indigenous Israeli attitude towards the two groups is markedly different.
The history of African Jews dates back 2,700 years, but the first migration of African Jews to Israel happened in the 1984 when 15,000 were airlifted from Ethiopia during Operation Moses. Under Israel’s law of return, Jews anywhere in the world have the right to Israeli citizenship, and Ethiopia was facing a devastating famine in 1984.
The next mass airlift, Operation Solomon, happened in 1991, and since then there’s been an ongoing trickle of Ethiopian Jews migrating to Israel. The trickle may be coming to an end, though, with last year’s Cabinet Decision which commits Israel to end the immigration of Ethiopians within two to three years. (You can read more about the migration of the “last” Ethiopian Jews here.)
Ethiopian Jews haven’t had an easy time in Israel. They might be full citizens with the same rights as indigenous Israelis, the Ethiopian Sigd holiday might now be an official Israeli holiday, and with growing numbers of Ethiopian Jews enlisting in the Israeli armed forces their positive contribution in this field has not gone unmentioned, but, by and large, Ethiopian Jews still find it harder than indigenous Jews to find work, hence training programmes like the one in this vid:
And if you talk to Ethiopian Jews in Israel you will hear many stories of being treated like second-class citizens.
But at least they are no longer seen as a curiosity. It’s a different story with African refugees. And the relationship between Ethiopian Jews and African refugees is also troubling.
African Jews and African refugees
“The xenophobia against African refugees is partly the fault of government ministers” says Oscar, himself from Congo. He is referring to Eli Yishai of the Ministry of Interior and Yaakov Neeman of Justice. “Because of their incitement and the lack of legislation, people can do anything they want to refugees and get away with it. Refugees have been beaten up in the streets, stabbed, had their homes set on fire, and the culprits are their neighbours, indigenous Israelis and Ethiopian Jews.”
The Ethiopian Jews, says Oscar, remind him a bit of the way some African Americans used to be, in that some of them seem embarrassed or ashamed to be associated with Africa or with black people, and generally distance themselves from the refugees. In the conflict between Palestine and Israel, they share the opinion of indigenous Israelis. They may be treated like second-class citizens and suffer higher rates of unemployment — which forces many to live on government handouts — but at least they are not refugees. That seems to be the attitude.
African refugees in Tel Aviv
Refugees from Africa first started trickling into Israel via Egypt in the early 90s, but the trickle became more of a flow in early 2007. 23,000 from Eritrea, 5,000 from Sudan, 1,000 Ivorians, 300 Congolese and a few from other parts of the continent, and most, according to Oscar, headed for Israeli beach resort city of Tel Aviv.
North Tel Aviv
Tel Aviv is Israel’s most cosmopolitan and “open-minded” city, which is why it was the chosen destination of almost 85% of the 35,000 refugees, claims Oscar. They live mostly in South Tel Aviv, a neighbourhood I toured last summer with Swaray Alusine, who is from Sierra Leone. Swaray works for the African Workers Union (AWU), an NGO that advocates for social change on behalf of migrant workers and their children.
Oscar’s NGO, the Hotline for Migrant Workers, exists to assist refugees and foreign workers in their dealings with the local bureaucracy, or, as Oscar puts it, “To build a bridge between the Israeli society and refugees.”
The bridge is certainly needed, because while the refugees share Tel Aviv with Israeli Jews they live completely segregated lives. That the refugees mostly speak English or French —rather than Hebrew — doesn’t help matters, says Oscar, but neither does white flight.
Most African refugees in South Tel Aviv live in neighbourhoods like Shapira and HaTikva. According to Swaray, most of the white Israelis who lived in these areas fled to the north and central parts of the city. “This area is now almost completely inhabited by refugees, but, with more refugees than houses, and no housing rights, some have to sleep in the park or on the streets.
Shapira, Tel Aviv
The luckier ones squat or pay a small amount of rent to Israeli landlords who gladly take the money but don’t want other Israelis to know they’re renting to refugees.
Swaray, who has lived in the area for many years, calls the life of the refugees — in Tel Aviv and elsewhere in Israel — “miserable, laborious and mostly short lived.” “They have escaped civil war or famine or ethno-political strife, but is this life really much better? Some work, in defiance of the Israeli government; most have no choice but to hang around doing nothing all day.”
“A few receive official refugee status, so they’re not arrested by immigration officers. Others are not so lucky — if they’re arrested they can be sent straight back to the situation they fled. But even these ‘lucky’ ones have no right to healthcare, work or housing. We [the NGOs] aren’t funded, and the clothes we distribute are from kibbutzim.”
In legal limbo
There are a few who recognise that this situation can’t continue as is. For instance, Member of Parliament Shlomo Molla, who happens to be an Ethiopian Jew, is quite supportive, which might explain why at least some of the refugees enjoy some freedom of movement; well, the official refugees, anyway.
As a refugee, you can travel to another country for a limited time, but you need a re-entry visa; this can be withdrawn at any time. You can’t get one to travel to Palestine, though; there are no Africans in Palestine, and it’s off limits to everybody.
Asylum requests are handled according to the feelings of clerks at the Ministry of Interior, claims Oscar. Since there’s no legislation, he doesn’t think the requests are ever cross-checked.
Years after the first refugees arrived, they exist in a state of limbo, and shunned by the two groups of people you would have thought would most understand their plight.
“History is filled with the experiences of Israelis as refugees, but that doesn’t appear to have any bearing on how refugees in Israel are treated.”
Written by Jorrit Dijkstra